Young people are not apathetic

Samantha Fletcher, Lecturer in the Department of Social Policy and Criminology, reflects on political change within the UK and the global response to economic inequalities young people face.

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A protester at the Occupy Wall Street protest, 2011 — Paul Stein under CC-BY licence under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license

Global discontent

Inequality is one of, if not the biggest, problems of our time. Unfettered global capitalism has given rise to huge global inequalities. Inequalities so vast that the top 0.1% of families in the world now own about the same share of global wealth as the bottom 90% combined. It was no surprise then, particularly in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, that we also saw a large spate of protest and unrest. This saw the banks getting bailed out and the people sold out through huge cuts to the public purse through ever worsening austerity measures.

2011 was a big year for global outcries of discontent with the way the world currently works. From the urban unrest in the UK after the killing of Mark Duggan, through to protest movements such as the Occupy movement in New York and London and many more cities — the events of 2011 caused people to reflect and ask questions injustices in the world. To use Paul Mason’s expression of the book of the same name published in 2012 one of the big questions was ‘why is it kicking off everywhere?’

Some people described the events of 2011 as reminiscent of the 1976 film Network where a TV news anchor-man live on the air screams out: ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore’, and people all across the country watching him on TV join him in repeating this. At a time when over 70% of the global population have wealth less than 10,000 US dollars, — that’s around seven and a half thousand pounds — whilst a handful of people hold half of the world’s total global wealth — when it was estimated that last year (2016) around 9000 people unnecessarily died of fuel poverty because they couldn’t afford to heat their homes, whilst others own huge mansion-sized properties that lie empty as a holiday home — well, why wouldn’t it be kicking off everywhere?

Young people are politically engaged

There is a lot we can take and learn from what happened in 2017 onwards, but one of the most important things to observe in the aftermath of 2011 was to acknowledge that young people and our future generations are not apathetic. Frustrated — yes. Angry — yes. Confused — maybe. But not apathetic, despite the efforts of many mainstream media outlets who seek to get us to think otherwise. So many young people are aware of the conditions facing them under capitalism in the West — they are living them. They are, in many ways, an atomised and fragmented group of people. A key reason for this is the current employment climate.

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Protests in Barkers Pool, Sheffield, 12th March, 2011 — Chris Indymedia under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license

It is difficult for young people to form economic and workplace solidarity — to make changes for greater workers’ rights through more traditional structures, such as unions. The reason for this is that one of the many effects of Neoliberalism we have seen from the 1980s onwards is the huge increase in the prevalence of insecure employment and precarious working conditions, such as short-term, fixed-term or zero-hours contracts.

It is estimated by the Bureau of Labo[u]r Statistics in the United States, that there were more than 30 million involuntary job losses between 1980 and 2004. And a 2016 estimate suggests that over six million people in the UK are in precarious or insecure employment. This makes it not only difficult to plan for the future, buy a house, build a life, but to make any moves for change for greater equality at the economic level.

The current employment and working conditions facing young people gives rise to what the Neo-Marxist political thinker Nicos Poulantzas described as ‘The isolation effect’. The isolation effect is essentially a case whereby these competitive neoliberal markets which are riddled with insecure forms of employment are able to pit people against each other. As young people struggle to make ends meet, they are aware that any resistance or expressions of discontent could see them easily lose their jobs and be replaced by the masses of unemployed people desperate for work. This leaves people with very weak individual bargaining power and has a huge impact on the possibility of making change for the better.

The rise of Momentum

What things like the Occupy movement demonstrated, was that despite difficulties in enacting change at the economic level or in their places of employment, many young people are keen to enact political solidarity. It was argued by many people that young person’s where the key driving force behind — and often made up the core — of the various 2011 protests in the West.

A key example of this, is the huge amount of support from young people for Jeremy Corbyn particularly in the movement known as Momentum. Capitalism and the economic inequality it brings isn’t working for anyone but the 1%, and young people are asking for change and backing those that claim they will address these issues.

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Jeremy Corbyn speaking at the #StopTrident rally at Trafalgar Square on Saturday 27th February, 2016 — Copyright free: Garry Knight under PDM licence

Whilst it is difficult to form solidarity and movements for change within the context of the economic situation as well as the workplace, protest movements such asthe Occupy movement demonstrate the willingness and want of young people alongside others to make positive social change and to call to account the “1%” for their exploitation of the many at the expense of the few.

Samantha Fletcher is a lecturer in Criminology at The Open University. This article was previously published on OpenLearn in February 2018. Subscribe to our newsletter for more free courses, articles, games and videos.

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